...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Whisky 1000: Old Hermitage Reserve Rye, bottled early 1910s

Five years ago, I was introduced to someone as "the guy who's tried more than 200 whiskies." The gentleman with whom I was being acquainted responded with a skeptical, "How'd you do that?" With the moment catching me by surprise, my answer was, "I don't really know."

But I do know. I could have only done this because of you. Thank you. Thank you for checking in on my last latest rants, complaints, brilliant ideas, loves and general narcissism. A story doesn't exist without an audience. Something brought you here and keeps you here, and I'll do everything I can to inspire you to stick around for more. Thanks again for stopping by.

I'd also like to thank the following people for supplying the drugs: Aaron, Amy, Andrew S, Andy S, Brett, Chris, Cobo, Eric S, Florin, Jennifer, Joe, John, Jordan, Josh F, Josh H, Josh P, Josh S, Lee, Linda, Linh, M.A.O., Matt W, Michael R, Ryan O, Ryan S, Ryan S, Sjoerd, Sku, Teemu, Tetris, Tim and Vik. (There are others, I know, and I'm so sorry for missing your name here. Thank you too!) I'd also like to thank LASC, OCSC, SCWC and CSN for deepening the exploration and also making humans hang out with each other.

And then there was 1000.

Four Decembers back, I spent a whisky evening with one Joshua Feldman, known to many as The Coopered Tot. Josh had always been very generous with his collection and knowledge, but on this night...holy moley...he announced we would be opening this:

Bottled by W. Bixby & Company in the early 1910s, this rye was distilled by W.A. Gaines & Co (one of the largest whiskey producers at the time) at The Hermitage Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. E.H. Taylor Jr was one of the company's early financiers, but he left in the 1870s. The distillery itself was built in 1868 and ran until it was turned into a chair factory during Prohibition.

W. Bixby started bottling Old Hermitage in 1909. Old Hermitage bottles had capsules on the top starting around 1915. This bottle did not have a capsule. That's how Josh got the 1909 to 1914 date range.

For more info on all of this stuff see Sjoerd's review and this great discussion between Cowdery and Veach, two bourbon history giants. Josh also referenced the bottle in this interview with Angus (who is himself a giant sponge of whisky insight).

Also, there's this:

In order to pry the cork cleanly from the bottle, The Coop utilized a rare form of Scottish acupuncture:

And it worked perfectly.

It looks like a cross between a shuttlecock and Sputnik.
Does that make it a Sputcock?
Discuss amongst yourselves.
For some zany reason we lined it up against full-powered Thomas H. Handy's 2012 release. And, by gum. It held its own. In fact, it was remarkable.

It all seems like a hazy crazy dream now, four years later. But to make sure this remained in the realm of reality, Josh sent me home with an excellent sample. What a mensch, jeezus.

To make this the official 1000th whisky on The Big Whisk(e)y List I have to give it a score. And I'll do that now, because I feel the weight of the absurd on this number: 93

Okay, you can forget that number now. I'll continue.

So how exactly does one review a rye whiskey that was bottled 100 years ago? I don't know, but I thought I'd try it alongside three enjoyable contemporary ryes. It wasn't just that I wanted to compare the quality, but I also wanted to glean if there was any matching (metaphorical) DNA in their styles.
I'll cut right to it. These younglings got schooled. When compared to Old Hermitage...

(time to shift verb tenses)

...Wild Turkey 101's nose is nutty, loaded with caramel and wood shavings, while the palate is bitter and green.

...Pikesville 6yo has a lot of candy and vanilla in the nose, with grain and smoked nuts in the palate.

...Smooth Ambler Old Scout 7yo's nose is rife with pickles, pine and soil, and its palate is medicinal and briney.

I sincerely like all three of these ryes on their own, but there's a flatness and greenness to them when compared to Old Hermitage. The Pikesville is vaguely the closest in style on the nose, but none has a similar palate. The MGP Smooth Amber has the most distinct style of the three.

And the Old Hermitage Reserve?

The nose is loaded with fruits: clementines, lemons and baked peaches. Then there's shoe leather and anise. Toasted rye bread and almond brittle. It grows dessertier with time, loaded with custards and sugars. Not even a whiff of old bottle funk.

It may be the most drinkable rye I've ever had. The palate has a moderate warmth, close to the 99-101 proof babies, but it doesn't scorch the senses. Add in an excellent balance of characteristics and a silky texture and...oh does it drink. About that balance; think sea salt, brown sugar, citrus juices, mint, toasted barley and earth. No blatant oak, no obvious vanilla. There's something almost alien about that after drinking so many modern whiskies.

The citrus comes on strong in the finish, almost like a single malt. Hints of salt, soil and coal smoke. Something floral joins the gentle sweetness.

Though I'm filled with elation and wonder, a quiet sadness lies beneath, like I've lost something that was okay to lose. It's not the alcohol talking, nor the customary chemical imbalances. Time has passed. Memories gone, distilled down into obstacles and momentum. Maybe that's why this blog is here. A thousand photographs of things mistakenly thought to be distractions. It's just whisky, but that doesn't mean it can't be beautiful. This was a good rye.